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My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) gave a passionate speech, in which he reminded us that we are not delegates, but representatives. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) spoke of her experiences in the
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House when she was first elected compared with now, citing the timetabling of the business of the day as a prime example. The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who pointed out that he was a member of the Wright Committee, spoke of empowering Back Benchers, particularly those on the Government side-that was greeted with approval from Labour Members. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) emphasised the need for reform by making reference to inquorate Select Committee meetings. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) gave a typically passionate speech in which, as would be expected, he managed to mention the Maastricht treaty.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD) rose-

Mr. Vara: I am sorry, but I will not give way. In the concluding speech before the winding-up speeches, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) spoke of more radical changes being required.

We now have the irony that on the one hand the public are disenchanted with the political process, yet on the other they have more opportunity than ever before to engage with us. Technological advances mean that members of the public are much better informed and have instant methods of expressing opinions to their elected representatives. I do not deny that the changes will be difficult to start with-a Back-Bench business committee will take some getting used to, for example-but these are challenges that we should take on and accept. We should not shirk the challenge because of a misplaced fear of failure.

The Leader of the House has spoken of establishing a consensus before we can proceed, but what she really means is that there should be unanimity. That was clearly confirmed by the Prime Minister when he spoke of the

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said in his opening speech, in the past the Government have been happy to press pet reforms through when it suited them but the demand for unanimity now strongly implies that the Government are not full square behind these proposals. If the Leader of the House disagrees with that assertion, I invite her deputy to confirm in her reply that on 4 March all the resolutions will be tabled. There really is no excuse for not allowing the House to express its views on all the proposals in the report. A failure to receive that confirmation will remind Members of the Leader of the House's earlier comments, when she spoke of a "climate of suspicion"-her words, not mine.

There is still time to recant. Today, we have the opportunity to restore to Parliament some of the powers that it has lost over successive decades. We have an opportunity to restore the balance of power, strengthening Parliament so that it can hold the Executive more fully to account. We have an opportunity to reach out to a disillusioned public as part of the process of regaining their trust and faith in us and we have an opportunity for Parliament more to reflect the political standards of the 21st century. Let us not waste that opportunity. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to support the proposals.

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9.50 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): I, too, want to thank all our speakers. We have had a wide-ranging debate today, with contributions from 30 right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House-20 main speakers and 10 other contributions. That was a tremendous effort. It might have been a Christmas tree debate, as the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who is no longer in his place, said earlier, but, as I am sure the shadow Leader of the House will admit, it was much more themed than the pre-recess Adjournment debates.

I believe that our aim tonight should be to support reforms that help to create a more vibrant and balanced House of Commons in the future. There have been a number of comments in the debate doubting the Government's commitment to reform issues and I want to refer to the most recent appearance before the Liaison Committee on 2 February of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He spoke about reform and said that

These were to:

I believe that was an important statement of intent before our debate tonight.

Many Members have referred to the pressing need to rebuild public confidence in this House and one of the key aspects of that change will be to increase public engagement with the House. We must consider how we can make what happens in this House more relevant to the public and also how we can give the public influence over some of the subjects for debate in Parliament. A number of Members have talked about this issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) said that the way in which we deal with petitions is "absurd." It is clear that there is a case for change and that our processes for presenting petitions from the public are no longer satisfactory. Indeed, the presentation of petitions is a practice of great antiquity as well as a method of modern democratic participation. A recent survey by the Hansard Society found that signing a petition was the most popular democratic activity and that 76 per cent. of the people surveyed had done so in the previous year. This figure was only 2 per cent. less than the number of people surveyed who had voted. As a Back-Bench MP-this was a role of which I was proud-I presented petitions on a range of subjects. One was directed at the G8 leaders when they were meeting at Gleneagles, whereas others concerned local bus services. All were equally important and I understand the importance that constituents attach to petitioning this House.

Mr. Cash: Will the Deputy Leader of the House give way?

Barbara Keeley: I do not think that I have time.

Five of the motions tabled tonight would reform how the House handles petitions and would give opportunities for debate on certain public petitions. We could say that that is a small step, but it is worth taking.

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Let me turn to the other motions. The Committee's report proposes a road map for reform. As we have seen in this debate, there is, unsurprisingly, disagreement about certain elements of that road map. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West said that we were moving in an consensual bubble today, but there were differences of opinion, as there have been in the past. Consensus has proved, across the decades of reform, difficult to reach and to agree. The past reforms of the House have not been a continuous process, as many hon. Members have emphasised that they should be. That is one of the most important things that we can take away from the debate. We have moved to a position where we have a fairly continual process of reform, and Members support that.

Much of the focus on reform in the past has been based on procedural change, aimed at improving efficiency. Since 1960, successive Procedure Committees-

Mr. Tyrie: Will the Deputy Leader of the House give way?

Barbara Keeley: Very briefly.

Mr. Tyrie: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Will she take the opportunity, briefly, to confirm that every proposal in the Wright Committee report will be on the Order Paper so that we can vote on it?

Barbara Keeley: I will come to the process at the end.

Successive Procedure Committees have looked into aspects of streamlining the Commons and its working practices, focusing on the use of questions and the structure of Commons sittings. Looking back at past reforms in the light of today's debate, it is striking how much time it took to consider and gain agreement on such reforms, with further time being needed to implement them. For example, the idea of introducing a time limit on speeches in the Chamber was first considered in 1960. The Procedure Committee recommended a trial of the idea in 1978, but time limits were not used routinely until much more recently. Issues regarding sittings, such as whether the House could rise earlier at night, were first considered in 1975 and examined again by the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, the Jopling Committee, in the 1990s. It then took two years to implement that Committee's recommendations. So we have had not continuous processes on such matters in the past, but processes that took many decades in some cases.

In the past 13 years, since the establishment of the Modernisation Committee in 1997, a more continuous stream of changes has been considered. Many changes focused on the efficiency of the House, but some measures have focused on increasing its effectiveness-an issue that a number of hon. Members have raised this evening. The introduction of Westminster Hall as a debating Chamber has allowed much more time for Back Benchers to raise issues. There were more than 330 hours of debate in Westminster Hall in the last Session, which is more time than would have been available had the House sat on every Friday of the year. There have also been important changes to allow greater topicality, including the introduction of topical debates and topical questions. More recently, Mr. Speaker has also allowed a greater use of urgent questions.

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Today's debate is clearly about differing views on how to improve the effectiveness of the Commons. The scale of the reforms before us is much greater than on previous occasions. Taken together, the reforms represent the largest set of changes that the House has considered for some time. It is fair to say that right hon. and hon. Members have been particularly keen to debate these reforms. We have had three Adjournment debates on this issue, the first of which was 48 hours after the Committee's report was published. We have also had two 90-minute debates in Westminster Hall about reform, and, more recently, a debate with independent Members about the revitalisation of the Commons. This subject was also raised during the pre-Christmas Adjournment debate. The House has, of course, already approved the recommendation for the election of Deputy Speakers by ballot.

Before I make my final comments, I want to refer briefly to some of the comments in the Committee's report on the current operation of the system. It states:

I have worked with the professional civil servants in both the Chief Whips Office and the Office of the Leader of the House, and I want to thank them, particularly the staff of the Leader of the House's office, of my office and Tom Healey, who have worked hard on the motions for today's debate, as they do on all aspects of House business.

We have heard many comments about Whips in the debate, and we are joined by a few of them now. The shadow Leader of the House said that he and the Opposition Chief Whip were as brothers. Perhaps, as a former Government Whip, I can continue the allusion to siblings. In keeping with the greater female representation on the Government side, I can say that our Whips Office has sisters, and I was proud to be one of that sisterhood.

My right hon. and learned Friend, the Leader of the House of Commons, has been clear regarding the process required to take the Committee's report forward. Her written ministerial statement of 9 February stated that any motions that are objected to tonight, or that have amendments that Members do not wish to withdraw, will be brought back to the House as amendable motions for votes scheduled for 4 March.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Will the Minister confirm whether there will be an opportunity to vote on appointments to the Intelligence and Security Committee next week?

Barbara Keeley: Just to be clear, this was covered when the Leader of the House opened the debate. We have listened to the debate and we have tabled a number of motions, the terms of which would be a big step forward. It is has been made clear that big items were tabled for consideration tonight. We will come back on a different day to vote; we will have motions, and amendments can be tabled. That has been made clear time and again.

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Sir George Young: So that there is no doubt whatsoever, can the hon. Lady confirm that all the Wright recommendations will be tabled for decision on Thursday week?

Barbara Keeley: Not all of them require decisions.

I should like to conclude by reminding right hon. and hon. Members that this is House business. As the Leader of the House made clear earlier, for this evening and for all other occasions on which we vote on the issues, there will be free votes-

10 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Business without Debate

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the 16 specific motions. In accordance with decisions of my predecessors, I regard amendments that do not bear the name of the Member in charge as constituting notice of opposition to the motion concerned.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

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